According to Pegasystems, the average employee switches between 35 work apps over 1,100 times a day. I know, I know. That feels like one of those “no way that’s true” stats. And while I’m having trouble believing in 35 work apps, I definitely believe it’s a lot of work apps and I definitely believe we’re switching between them over a thousand times a day. I mean, email, Slack, Zoom, all the apps in Microsoft Office, proprietary systems, time logging, management, file systems, browsers, apps related to specific roles, it’s undeniable most of us desk folk are inside software every moment of our workday. And that doesn’t count all the software experiences of our personal lives—social media, streaming services, games. We live inside the software world more than we live inside the hard world. More relevant than that, we live inside many, many software worlds.
That must mean we’re experts at navigating software, right? Nope. We suck at it. When it comes to software, users are the proverbial jack of all trades, masters of none. There’s no such thing as a power user anymore. We all know just enough about each software experience to get what we need done, usually clumsily, and maybe not even that. And then most of the time we’re just frustrated with it—the shortcomings of individual experiences, our own dissolving memory of how to use them, the reset that happens when you jump between two experiences, keeping up with UI changes. It creates a very real software fatigue.
When it comes to software, users are the proverbial jack of all trades, masters of none.
But we software makers often forget about this. We think and act and build like users are only ever going to be inside our own software experience. Worse, that they love being in there. Because of that, we try to meet every need and desire of every possible user, fit in an ever-escalating set of features, try to eat the domains of other software experiences before they eat us. Soon we have menus inside of menus inside of menus and regular redesigns to fit all the new feedback and features. Meanwhile, all the user wants to do is send an email. Or grab a file. Or post a comment.
Here’s the thing. Every addition to your software experience has a negative impact on the quality of your experience.
Take Dropbox. I’ve always loved it. All my stuff, personal and professional, is up there. But they allow so many actions on a single file that sometimes I find it hard to quickly do what I want to do in Dropbox 100% of the time, which is either to download or share a file. And at some point they wanted to be more than storage. They also wanted to be my desktop file system. So now when I hit the Dropbox icon in my tray, I have to navigate through their system instead of my native system, and it’s not as good. Originally, I just had to click the icon and access my files, now I have to click the icon, click another icon to open a window, click another icon to open my native file system, and then remember to close that Dropbox window.
Dropbox wants me to live longer inside its experience at the cost of that experience. And it works, but I’m also mad at Dropbox every time I use it.
Every addition to your software experience has a negative impact on the quality of your experience.
But if software isn’t evolving what it does, it’s stagnating, right? Or some software maker who wasn’t a competitor before will write some code and suddenly become a competitor? Not necessarily. Here’s how to create a software experience that treats the user well and stands out among all the apps they have to hurdle in their race through the day.
Before you launch a single new feature, make sure the fundamental function of your app, the whole reason it exists, its core focus, is the best in the world. That it looks amazing, that it feels great, that it’s functionally bulletproof. Make sure you’re the gold standard for that function. The Google Search of that thing.
That means when you launch, the next sprint isn’t to add the next feature on the roadmap. It’s to make that app even better at what it does. To crank design, functionality, and performance up to 100 before you even think of doing anything else to it. If you’re the best at that one thing, users will come to you for that one thing.
Users aren’t in our software because they want to be there. It’s not a picnic spot. They’re trying to get a job done so they can move on to the next thing.
So design and build for the continuum of their many software experiences: easy in, task accomplished easily, easy out. High levels of time-spent-in-app is often lauded as a metric for success when it could be the opposite. If I’m in your app too long, it might be because I’m floundering at what I came to do.
You’re never competing on how many features you can throw in a bulleted list on your marketing copy. You’re competing on how great an experience it is.
And while that might seem unintuitive, the great outcome here is that you’re constantly being compared to the other software experiences that the user is jumping in and out of. And if your experience is fast and clean, and other experiences are slogs and booby traps for their time, you start looking really good just by comparison.
I’m not saying don’t grow. You want to grow. And you want to fend off competitors. But you do that by having the best experience. So maybe instead of building and building vertically on the same software platform, creating a confusing Tower of Babel of features and user experience, maybe release software horizontally. You’ve created an app that does what it does the best on the market. Now create a second app that does what it does the best. And a third app that does what it does the best, each one world-class and each one uncompromised by each other.
Take Google Search again. It does one thing: It searches. Sure, they could have adorned it with a thousand other features, barnacling them onto that blank white page, but every time they would have added to it, it would have become less about search.
In the end, you’re never competing on how many features you can throw in a bulleted list on your marketing copy. You’re competing on how great an experience it is. It’s quality versus quantity. Every new feature degrades the overall experience, makes it more complex, more confusing, less aligned to a clear purpose, and less delivered to a definite audience.
If you want to hear a discussion on this topic, check out the episode Nobody’s a Power User: Fighting Software Fatigue from our Agency on Record podcast.